by Dante Zappala
Every staple I removed from the risers brought the same sense of satisfaction. After prying, digging, and pulling, I’d feel a sensation of relief as I excavated yet another sliver of metal from the oak staircase. Then I would scan the 6 inches in front of me and relive the frustration of finding more staples. This emotional volley went on non-stop for six hours.
By the time I called it done, where I’d reached the point that I believed my kids had a reasonable chance of not catching an errant shard in their feet, I’d likely removed more than 500 staples en route to a single conclusion: I will never install carpet in my house again.
When I bought this place 10 years ago, it needed a full renovation. I had a vision, one that took me back to my childhood. Growing up in Mt. Airy and Germantown, I was surrounded by nothing but old wood floors, plaster and ancient fixtures. I resented it. It made me feel poor.
At the same time, I relished the perceived luxury of my grandparents’ row home in South Philadelphia. When we visited, I would marvel at the paneling, the drop ceiling, and clear plastic protecting the cushions of the Italian styled couches. They had porcelain statues of birds and goddesses, and brass statues that doubled as lamps.
Upstairs was always a curious mystery to me. On the occasions I’d stay over, I’d sleep in the middle room. My grandparents slept in the front room. The backroom was a sanctuary for my grandfather’s opera collection. The bathroom was tiled in pink and green. It smelled of Aqua Velva and baby powder.
The pillows were the softest I’d ever known. I’d fall asleep marveling at the contrasting weight of the thick woven bed cover topped with the light zig-zag wool blanket my grandmother knitted. The cleanliness was foreign, and it made everything feel delicate.
But above all, what I loved the most about my grandparent’s house was the luxurious wall-to-wall green carpet.
After the exquisite three-course meals my grandmother would make, my brothers and I would ascend to the landing of the second floor. It was sterile and quiet and we knew better than to poke around up there. But we weren’t on the second floor to explore. We were there to slide back down.
We’d make countless laps zooming down the stairs on our stomachs, coming perilously close to crashing through the orange stained glass on the foyer door, only to quickly climb back up again. The pile of the carpet was tight but not too short. The friction created a level of heat which precisely straddled the border between comforting warmth and painful burning.
By the time it came to renovating my own house, I was too old to slide down the stairs. But I was married to the idea of having carpet. The expense of laying it on the stairs seemed exorbitant. ‘How could it cost that much for 14 stairs’? I thought. Now I know why: the bloody staples.
Ten years on, I am attempting to negotiate a move around the corner to a bigger house. In preparing my house for rent, it was clear the carpet had to come up. The dog had made her mark on it. The cats found some corners to rip up. And the kids never slid down the carpet. Not even once.
I took the day off from work to prepare for a visit from John Wissinger, who was coming to give me a quote on refinishing the floors underneath. The carpet and underlayment were easy enough to roll up. But the remaining debris would have me on my hands and knees through the evening.
The next morning my legs hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt after a marathon. My back was stiff. My right hand barely moved. This was my penance for chasing an idea, a stupid idea contrary to pragmatism and good taste.
Two days later, I still can’t run. Seventy-mile weeks hadn’t prepared me for a day of torturous and tedious labor. The hours of bending, crouching and pulling have left present reminders of my naive adamancy to reject certain elements of my childhood.
My stepmother still lives in that row home in South Philly. She and my dad moved down there to care for his mom in her last year. Afterwards, they decided to stay.
My dad had spent much of his life finding reasons to dislike opera; a proxy for the animosity he harbored for his father, I’m sure. But at the end, he allowed himself to experience it and he fell in love. He’d sit in that back room and listen to music as the afternoon sunlight poured through the window.
My father would die in the living room he grew up in – the same living room his parents died in.
Yet, in the time before he passed, he and his wife painted the paneling white and replaced the furniture. When they inevitably pulled up the green carpet, it revealed a well preserved finished oak floor.
It required nothing but appreciation.